Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: Commonsense Dresscutting and Drafting for Adults by Muriel May Staeheli

An Australian classic from the 1940s and 50s.


I absolutely love this book but it is a little hard to come by. I found it in Bayside Books, in Wynnum. Given there were so many editions, it must be around somewhere. If you’re in Australia, I recommend keeping an eye out for it in second-hand book shops. If that’s not an option, Abe Books and Ebay are obvious places to watch. Books & Collectibles is also a good place to look. Good luck! It is a great shame that this volume is not available as a modern reprint or an ebook. You will see at the bottom of this post that a small excerpt is available on scribd.

Successful Dressmaking by Ellen and Marietta Resek would make an ideal companion volume. It pops up regularly on the above websites. And I have tripped over it a couple of times in the back room at Bayside Books.

Many Australians will be aware of Enid Gilchrist’s pattern drafting books which were very popular for about three decades (1950-1980).

Muriel M. Staeheli’s books are less well known but equally nice when you can find them . For about a decade, (1948-1957 or thereabouts) multiple editions of Ms Staeheli’s four-part series ‘Commonsense Dresscutting and Drafting’ were published by William Brooks in Brisbane:

Part 1. ‘General and Children's Clothing’

Part 2. ‘Kiddies Clothes’

Part 3. ‘for Adults’

Part 4.  ‘Coats and Skirts in Advanced Fashionable Styles, including Raglans, Dolmans, Capes, etc’

The volume I have before me is Part 3 (seventh edition) ‘for Adults’. Despite the title, it only incudes women’s clothes. This probably has has nothing to do with Staeheli’s opinion of men, but instead reflects something of the social history of home-sewing. Clothing produced at home was worn by women and children, while men’s clothes were generally purchased, either ready-made or from a tailor.

The drafting instructions given are very clear and easy to follow. Included are a variety of bodices, blouses and sleeves (for use with and without shoulder pads), skirts, a pair of shorts, pyjamas, two night gowns and two petticoats. To transform the patterns into finished garments, you would need, at a minimum, intermediate sewing experience and a good reference book.

The book does not shed any light on home-sewing techniques from the period, providing only very limited and basic information. An ideal companion volume in this regard would be Successful Dressmaking by Ellen and Marietta Resek (Melbourne: Colorgravure Publications, 1950s).

As a test project from this book, I selected the darted petticoat with shoulder straps. I opted to make it without fastenings. This means it must be slipped on and off over your head. For slipping on and off to be a real possibility, Staeheli gives the helpful guideline that the petticoat should be drafted with a waist measurement of the wearer’s waist measurement plus three inches. Those with large busts and small waists may need to add four inches. Obviously it’s worth checking how well these guidelines apply with a tape measure and a strip of fabric or cotton tape before you start.


The petticoat is a quick and easy project, very useful and fun. I put it together using Nana’s Bernina Jubilae (1953). This fancy modern machine has a zigzag stitch which I used to attach lace to the bottom edge.


To finish the upper edge I used a ruffle created using my 1936 Singer 99K and, of course, the ruffler attachment. In the end, I had to do some hand sewing to get the ruffle to sit how I wanted. Left to it’s own devices, the ruffle seemed very keen on standing up, and looking very neat and starchy. I wanted it to hang downwards in an artfully messy way.


Because I intended this version for flolloping on the sofa and moaning about the sweltering summer rather than as an actual petticoat, I used woven cotton fabric with more body than one would for an undergarment. I flat-felled the seams, as French seams would have been stiff and bulky.


If you would like to try Staeheli’s instructions to draft a petticoat for yourself, you can download an excerpt of the book with the relevant pages from scribd.


  1. What a great post - it's wonderful that you made a garment from the book - and great idea to wear this pretty little petticoat as a summer house dress :). Love the information on the old books .

    1. Thanks Sarah Liz. I've also made a camisole using the same pattern. I'm also watching your sew monthly challenge and wondering whether my output is sufficient. I keep getting lost in these old books and patterns.